Notes on collections at the RIHS
A recent reference inquiry led to a partially successful search for information on a twelve ton boat fitted out by carpenter Elijah Ormsbee of Providence with a steam engine constructed by David Wilkinson of Pawtucket in 1792. According to volume two of State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, edited by Edward Field, Ormsbee and Wilkinson “…navigated their steamboat between Providence and Pawtucket and exhibited her capacity to their admiring fellow citizens ‘between the bridges’ on the Seekonk River. Instead of a side wheel the boat was propelled by a ‘goose-foot paddle’. The boat was named the Experiment, and the inventors had such faith in its success that they had tickets engraved and printed for passages on her.”
A ticket for travel on the Experiment appears with the caption “The above is a fac simile of the tickets that were issued by Elijah Ormsbee and David Wilkinson for contemplated trips on the ‘steamboat’ in 1792.”
The identical ticket appears online on sheaf: ephemera and is said to have been for travel on a later vessel by the same name, built in 1808 by Varnum Wilkinson for inventor Robert Grieve. This boat was “driven by a propeller, with power supplied by [eight] horses on a treadmill” to put the machinery in motion. (Where exactly were those eight horses?)
The online article goes on to describe the sad fate of the latter Experiment, when on a return trip from Pawtuxet “a gust of wind drove the boat upon the mud flats . . . where she lay all night.”
For a more detailed account of the early Experiment, see “Elijah Ormsbee”, by Edwin A. Platt, a paper read before the New England Chapter, Steamship Historical Society of America, at Providence, R.I., May 12, 1946 (RI Biog Or-5, Historical Monograph No. 1).